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Slow start for wheat not ideal, but optimism remains

Tim Dufault, a Crookston, Minn. farmer, stands in his workshop on Monday, April 23, 2018. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers executive director David Torgerson details how the organization works with other groups, including MN Barley and Prairie Ag Communications, at its Red Lake Falls, Minn. facility on Monday, April 23, 2018. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 2

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Tim Dufault knows and likes wheat. Always has, always will. The fourth-generation Crookston, Minn., farmer expects to plant half of his farm to wheat and half to soybeans this spring — provided the weather cooperates.

"I'd sure like to get in all the wheat I planned to. And it's still possible I can. But for that to happen, we'll have to really start moving on the planting," he said.

Dufault, who farms in northwest Minnesota, where the state's wheat production is concentrated, is typical of many farmers in his area and the Upper Midwest in general. Weeks of cold, wet weather in April delayed the start of planting and could cause Dufault and other farmers to plant less wheat and more soybeans.

Wheat, a cool-season grass, usually fares best when planted early, allowing it to mature before late-summer heat. Wheat is especially well-suited to northwest Minnesota, where relatively cool late-spring and early-summer temperatures further boost the crop.

In contrast, soybeans hold up better in late-summer heat, and so the crop usually is planted later than wheat — a major consideration after April planting delays.

Before the uncooperative April weather, this was shaping up to be a strong year for wheat acreage in northwest Minnesota and the rest of the Upper Midwest.

The generally terrific 2017 spring wheat yields encouraged farmers to plant more of the crop this spring, said David Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, based in Red Lake Falls, Minn.

Red Lake Falls, a farm town of about 1,400, is in the heart of Minnesota wheat country and not far from where Dufault farms.

Projections by agricultural economists indicate that wheat could be relatively profitable this year, further encouraging farmers to plant the crop, Torgerson said.

In late March, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, predicted that Minnesota farmers will plant 1.6 million acres of wheat, a whopping 38 percent more than in 2017.

Torgerson said his group expected a sizeable increase in Minnesota wheat acreage, although not one that large. He also noted that 2017 wheat acreage was smaller than usual, skewing 2017-2018 comparisons.

Wheat can be planted safely well into the middle of May, and in many years is even planted later, so there's still plenty of time to plant the crop, Torgerson said.

"Nobody's giving up on wheat yet, that's for sure," he said.

Forum News Service visited Dufault's farm on April 23 after several warm, sunny days. Patches of snow remained in sheltered spots, and water from melted snow was common in low spots in many of his fields.

If the weather continued to cooperate and dry out soggy fields, Dufault hoped to begin planting wheat in late April or early May. Ten to 14 days of favorable weather after that probably would allow him to plant all the wheat he hoped to and meet his original goal of half wheat, half soybeans.

"Two weeks — even 10 days — of warm, dry weather would be great," he said.

The downside of that is, "We'll go straight from (planting) wheat to soybeans. There'll be no break between. It will be so compressed. There'll be less time for family" he said.

If the weather doesn't cooperate and wheat planting stretches out well into May, he could switch a few fields originally planned for wheat to soybeans.

Dufault, who's planting his 38th crop this spring, said he remains optimistic about his yet-to-be planted wheat fields.

"We've seen it before where we plant in May and we still had good crops," he said. "So I think we'll be OK.

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